[SoundStage!]The Candy Store
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September 2004

No Second Place

When listening to high-end audio equipment, value judgments come easily. Most audiophiles will agree that certain characteristics are not desirable. I have never heard a serious hobbyist defend the virtue of flabby bass. No true audiophile would lecture on the positive attributes of a shallow soundstage or an extremely dull tonal balance. And I have yet to hear preachings of the intrinsic worth of high distortion. Although most listeners will agree that precise imaging, transparency, and a palpable midrange are all good things, I have found that often a component’s weak points define it when compared to other like components.

It’s not always so simple.

Sometimes two comparable components each seem completely "right" and yet startlingly different. Sometimes a comparison leaves a listener holding two long lists of positive attributes and scratching his head. "If this one is right, the other has to be wrong" is just a load of nonsense.

Catherine Zeta-Jones has raven-colored hair, dark skin, a shapely figure, and deep brown eyes. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has California-blonde hair, fair skin, a slender figure, and ice blue eyes. Nicole Kidman has red hair, pale skin -- you get the picture. Which one is beautiful?

In the last few months two speakers have come to occupy our store and create a nasty love triangle. Both speakers are minimonitors, and those of you who have read my columns in the past know of my passion in this area. Both speakers are from the cool climes of Scandinavia. Each sings a different exquisitely beautiful song.

The clandestine femme fatale: Amphion argon2

First to show up was the Amphion argon2 from Finland. The argon2 ($2000 per pair) uses a cabinet of conventional shape, although a bit slender in stature (15"H X 7 1/2"W X 12"D). It is a two-way vented design employing a 6 1/2" aluminum-cone midbass driver and a 1"aluminum-dome tweeter. Our demo pair is beautifully finished in a very light birch veneer, giving the speaker a modern European aesthetic.

The argon2 was first reviewed by Doug Schneider in March 2002. It received a Reviewers’ Choice designation and became one of Doug's favorites (I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, Doug). Although mostly conventional in appearance, the design of the Amphion line is quite distinctive.

Much has been made of the critical midrange frequencies between roughly 2kHz and 5kHz. Most people have heard about the ear’s hypersensitivity in this region and how easily sonic anomalies in this range can be detected. Because of this, many speaker designers have set about trying to avoid placing the crossover frequency in the middle of this range. Manufacturers sometimes attempt to solve this problem by using a dedicated midrange driver and more complex crossover network. Others allow the midbass driver to extend to the higher end of the spectrum before crossing it over to the tweeter.

Amphion sees a problem with both of these scenarios. They believe that by using a driver with a higher mass, colorations are added and transient speed is lost. Therefore, Amphion crosses over all of their speakers between 1200 and 1800Hz. The Argon crosses over at 1200Hz. The tweeter handles all of the most critical frequencies. Its moving mass being only a fraction of midbass drivers', the transients will be faster and coloration less likely. The woofer, in turn, is able to reproduce more accurately what it was designed to do in the first place. Normally tweeters would have power-handling issues at such low frequencies. Amphion solves this problem by placing the tweeter at the back of a waveguide carved into the front baffle of the speaker. The waveguide increases sensitivity by about 9dB and also controls dispersion, which is part of the U/D/D system described next.

200409_argon2_2.jpg (23147 bytes)The second unique feature of the argon2 (and all Amphion speakers) is a system called Uniformly Directive Diffusion or U/D/D. This design was developed to ensure that "the direct sound from the speaker is not masked by room reflections." By controlling dispersion, and attenuating all off-axis frequencies evenly, Amphion is attempting to take much of the room (often the biggest problem) out of the equation.

The sound of the argon2 can best be described as clean, clean, clean and quick, quick, quick. I have often heard the sound of good systems described "as if a veil had been removed" or "as if listening through a freshly cleaned window." With the argon2 there is no veil; there is no window; there is just the music. In some ways this speaker reminds me of a good full-range electrostat. Indeed, the same speed and utter transparency are there, but without the sheen that I sometimes find less than desirable in an electrostatic panel. The tonal balance is non-existent. It is neither warm nor cool, dull nor bright. Like a good Zen master, it just is.

Recently a customer came in looking for a full-range floorstanding speaker for under $3000. Although he was initially uninterested in a monitor speaker, the argon2s just happened to be set up, so he sat and gave them a listen. He listened to a variety of music from Dire Straits to Mozart. He was somewhat of a percussion fan and paid close attention to the drums in several recordings. After we finished a fairly extensive session with the argon2, we tried a variety of well-regarded floorstanders. He kept commenting on how much clearer a picture he had heard through the argon2. The voices seemed to come out of a black space. The snap of the drum was never as quick or precise as with the little Amphion speaker.

Microdynamics are one of the most difficult things for a speaker to reproduce accurately. It is these small immediate shadings that bring life to reproduced sound. The argon2 is quite capable of capturing these elusive nuances and creating a very "live" sound. With the LP version of Michael Hedges' Aerial Boundaries [Windham Hill WD-1032] the argon2 captures not only the definition of the plucked strings, but the tail of each note as it intermingles with the next. It is truly a captivating speaker.

The curvaceous seductress: Dali Helicon 300

Dali is from Denmark, mother country to an ever-increasing family of world-class speaker craftsmen. Names like Dynaudio and Scan-Speak need no introduction. In the past, Dali concentrated on markets in Europe and Asia, finding amazing success, but had little reputation in the US. That is changing rapidly. The press in North America has already discovered Dali and the reviews have been nothing short of raves.

We have been Dali dealers for some time now. We were dealers even before Dali had official distribution set up. We have carried pretty much the full line of Dali speakers from the budget-conscious Blue series to the cost-no-object Megaline. The first pair of Dali speakers I sold was the top-of-the-line Megaline ($40,000). Nothing like starting at the top and working your way down.

With the Helicon 300 ($2750 per pair) it was lust at first sight. Straight out of the box I came face-to-face with a beautiful, gently curved cabinet, finished in elegant rosenut veneer and covered with a sexy polished lacquer. The gorgeous woodwork extended not only to the sides of the cabinet body but to the baffles as well. Word has it that this came at the insistence of the Asian market. Thank you, Asia.

The Helicon 300 is a fairly large monitor (17"H X 8"W X 14"D) that measures taller and deeper than the argon2 while maintaining about the same width. The Helicon is an unusual three-way design using a 6 1/2" midbass driver made of wood and paper fiber, and two tweeters. The midbass driver crosses over to a 1" soft-dome tweeter at 3400Hz, which extends to 13kHz before handing off to a ribbon super tweeter. Both tweeters are combined in a single aluminum panel, which acts as a perfectly stiff baffle and aids in cooling the tweeters.

Cabinets with curved surfaces or sides are becoming more and more common these days. There’s a good reason for this. Conventional boxes tend to create trapped waves, which bounce around inside a cabinet, causing it to resonate and sound, well, more like a box. Curved sides help this situation in a couple of ways. First of all, curved panels inherently provide for a more rigid cabinet, reducing the box’s ability to resonate. Second, the curves act as a guide to provide a path for the rear wave out the ports in the rear of the speaker.

The tweeters are said to act as one high-frequency driver, offering the body of a conventional soft-dome and the airy quality of a ribbon. This certainly seems to be the case. I have always been a sucker for a speaker with a slightly sweet tonal balance. I’ll make no apologies for it. I like a little cola with my bourbon and sweetness from my speakers. (I do like my wine dry, however. Go figure.) I find that a slightly sweet tonal balance makes the music just a little more emotional and involving. The problem that often accompanies a sweet speaker is a lack of extension and air. This often takes away that palpable presence we all crave and sense of space that opens the door into the recording.

The high frequencies produced by the Helicon 300s provide the best of both worlds. Voices are smooth and natural while maintaining all the air you’d ever want. A great example of this can be found when listening to Mark Knopfler’s voice on Dire Straits’ On Every Street [Warner Brothers 47787]. This CD is very well recorded, and when it's played on a highly resolving system the sense of space can be almost overwhelming. I’ve also found that with systems that seem to reproduce the spaciousness the best, Knopfler’s voice takes on a slightly edgy and grainy quality. Not so with the Helicon. Knopfler’s voice is smooth and organic, yet never syrupy. The spacious quality is startling.

Quite by accident, I found an unusual attribute of the Helicon 300. We were listening to the speakers through an employee’s Krell pure-class-A, 100-pound monster. A customer asked what the Consonance M100S integrated tube amp sounded like on the Helicons. This amplifier uses four 300B tubes in parallel to achieve an output of 18 watts. It also costs less than $2000. The Helicons have a sensitivity rating of 86dB and are a 4-ohm nominal load. This does not speak well for working with tube amps in general, let alone low-powered 300Bs. However, the Helicons absolutely sang with this amp. Not only was the music amazingly palpable, but the bass was well defined and the speakers would play at quite satisfactory levels without any sense of strain. It was one of those moments when you just couldn’t leave the room. We played disc after disc, long after the customer had left. Sometimes I just don’t get this sensitivity/power thing.

Choices

To make a prediction as to which of these speakers a listener might prefer would be an exercise in futility. I can tell you that both of these speakers are on the top our suggested-listening list if they fit a customer’s budget. Interest in both speakers has been high and comments have always been more along the lines of preference rather than criticism of either speaker.

The Helicon is sexy with a hint of sweetness. It will draw you into the human song like a siren. Be it opera, choral, folk, male vocal or, oh yes, your favorite sultry seductress, prepare to be taken advantage of. The Helicon loves jazz and classical music as well. Strings will come through with a silky, natural quality while still allowing you to hear the breaths of the piccolo player.

If you prefer it clean and quick with a "tell it like it is" presentation, the argon2 should top your list. Rarely have I heard a speaker that provided such an unadulterated view into the music. Guitar is startling on these speakers. Be it Stevie Ray Vaughan or Michael Hedges, speed and clarity of plucked strings are uncanny. If percussion is your thing, I know of no other speakers that reproduce percussion (including drums and piano) as well as Amphion speakers. The argon2 will capture the smallest subtlety of voices or instruments with never a hint of aggression or brightness.

There is no winner here. There are only winners here.

...Bill Brooks
billb@soundstage.com

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